Concern for people’s conversion raises some interesting challenges for home group leaders. First, how do we assess whether our group members are converted? And, second, what do we do about it if we’re unsure about someone in our group?
Here are some suggestions.
No doubt you are already praying for your group members. But if you are concerned about whether someone in your group is converted, ask God to make it plain both to you and to them. And of course ask God to be at work leading them to an unambiguous condition of repentance and faith. Nothing we suggest below can be effective but for the Holy Spirit enlightening the eyes of their hearts (Eph 1:18). So pray.
It is of course a dangerous thing to judge others (Rom 2:1; Matt 7:1-3), and it is very important to apply the same standards we use to judge others to ourselves first. But it is also true that to care for people we need to make assessments of their spiritual needs. We can’t snatch people from the fire (Jude 23) without first coming to the view that they are in danger of being badly burnt.
The book of 1 John is helpful in terms of ‘signs’ of trusting Jesus. For example: “If we say we have fellowship with him while…” (1 John 1:6) or “by this we know that we have come to know him…” (1 John 2:3). We should be thinking about these sorts of questions:
But at the level of simply understanding the gospel, much can also be assessed from answers to questions in our Bible study time. Is there a pattern to their answers that suggests they think about salvation in terms of works or grace? The occasional answer in a works direction is common (it is after all the natural human instinct of self-justification). But a pattern of this sort of answer may indicate a misunderstanding of the heart of the gospel.
Some home group leaders are so experienced that this sort of assessment of answers becomes almost instinctive; others of us might need to actually make some private notes on our group members after each study to help us notice patterns like this.
So what do you do once you’ve come to an assessment of a group member that maybe he or she is not converted yet?
There are two approaches.
I suspect the more common approach is to just encourage the person to keep coming along—hearing and engaging with the word of God week by week, interacting with others who are modelling the Christian life—and praying for them that God will be at work in this process and the penny will eventually drop.
There is wisdom in this approach. Indeed, one of our Facebook friends shared this encouraging story with us the other day:
We had a guy coming to our teens group on and off who enjoyed the company but was clearly not a Christian. He did enjoy Bible study and was learning heaps and I asked him a few times what his thoughts were. About eight months ago he said to me that he would rather take the penalty for his own sin as he felt it was wrong for Jesus to take his own. Eight months later, now it’s a University fellowship group, and he's still with us and we've been going through the Romans IBS study which spends a great deal of time laying the foundation that humanity is without hope apart from God. Something over those weeks clicked and when I asked him recently he said he was ready to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. And this process came about just by sitting in our Bible study!
We should never underestimate the power of the word of God to transform people as they sit under it regularly.
On the other hand, there is a strong theme in the New Testament of the urgency of the need for repentance and faith. As Paul says:
This is why it is essential that we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). In the second last verse in the Bible, Jesus reminds us that “Surely I am coming soon”. Even if Jesus doesn’t return this week, the story of the sudden death of the rich man in Luke 12:16-21 is a salutary reminder of the fact that we don’t know how urgent the need for repentance actually is for any specific person.
So whilst it is tempting to take the slow route to conversion, there is an urgency to the need for repentance that ought to make us feel the weight of responsibility to take some action.
What might that action be? Most likely it’s arranging to meet with the person one-to-one to have a more personal conversation. (Of course, if it is a mixed gender group, it may be more appropriate for your co-leader to meet up with the person.)
But how do you arrange that without saying something that could put at risk their continued sitting under the word of God in your group? Saying “Joe, I’m not convinced you are a Christian, like you seem to think you are, and I’d like to meet up with you to set you straight!” may not be the way to go about it for most people!
Naturally, asking to meet up with someone personally could make them wonder why and immediately put them on the defensive. But if it is your practice to meet up individually with all group members from time to time—which is a great thing to do—the invitation suddenly becomes less like you are singling out one person for ‘a talking to’: “Hey, Joe, I try to catch up with all our group members personally from time to time, just to see how everyone’s going and how they’re finding the group. Could we meet up some time for coffee?”
Once you get together, the goal is to try to understand their personal story and where they are up to. Hopefully through past casual conversations at your home group, church or other times, you know a little bit already. But if you’ve never really talked to them about their Christian background, this provides an easy way in: “I know you joined our group earlier this year, but I don’t know much about your story beforehand. What’s been your journey in Christian things before this year? Did you grow up in a Christian family or is it a more recent thing?”
Armed with a little more background information, you can then move on to questions about how they are finding the group: “How are you finding our Bible studies? Do you feel like they are helping you get a grip on what the Bible’s overall core message is?”
Note the ambiguity of this second question: it doesn’t imply that they don’t have a grip on the Bible’s core message, simply that the studies should be helping them develop that. But it does give them the opportunity to admit that they still have a way to go in figuring it all out, and then you have the opportunity to offer to help them do that. (Two Ways to Live is ideal for going over the Bible’s overall core message, and the Two Ways to Live Bible Study is a really useful tool for doing this in around an hour.)
If, on the other hand, they indicate a degree of confidence that they are understanding the Bible’s core message, you can hone in on the key question: “Do you mind me asking you a kind of personal question? Has your understanding of the Bible’s core message given you peace with God or do you not feel like you can say that yet?”
(Actually, it would be a loving thing to ask every member of your group this question when you meet with them personally, even those who seem to be solid Christians—see 2 Corinthians 13:5. And if that is your practice, it does make it easier to ask anyone because you can honestly tell them you ask everyone.)
Now, of course every person is different, conversations almost never go exactly to plan, and it is impossible to give you the exact words to say to have this potentially uncomfortable conversation. That’s why you need to pray for God’s wisdom and help.
We can perhaps take some heart from Paul’s experience of speaking “boldly” with King Agrippa and asking him a direct question about his faith (Acts 26:25-29). The King clearly understood he was being challenged: “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Then Paul makes his motivation plain for asking such a confronting question: “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”
May that be our desire too: that every person in our group would enjoy the same blessings of being a Christian that we enjoy.
My thanks to Steven Tran, Jacquie Marshall and Anna Cole for their helpful input on this topic. —Ian Carmichael